Tuesday June 6th 2017
The horrors experienced by unwanted refugees lingering in legal limbo have been well documented over the years. Millions of refugees from Syria, Iraq, sub Saharan Africa and south east Asia have made the decision to leave their homelands fleeing persecution or seeking improved prospects. Embarking on extremely perilous journeys via several well known refugee corridors into Europe, only too many of them end up being victims of inhumane greedy human traffickers, and face being raped, tortured and held for ransom at the risk of being murdered. In recent years we heard of the emergence of the barbaric practice of removing vital organs from refugees which would then be sold onto the black market. Refugee smugglers in the Egyptian Sinai for instance, are said to make sizable sums of money harvesting organs from unwilling non consenting refugee donors, who are then left to die in the desert.
Until very recently, it was believed that rogue groups, terrorists or simply criminals seeking profits were the predators refugees had to take precautions to avoid while trekking across danger zones such as ungoverned parts of Libya, war ravaged Yemen or the Egyptian Sinai.
But now, it seems that being blown into smithereens by fighter jet ammunition is just another of the horrific ways to die a refugee risks encountering. On the night of March 16-17 2017, forty two Somali refugees, all registered and documented by the UNHCR, were brutally killed off the coast of Yemen near the waters of the Bab El Mandeb strait when the boat they were travelling in was attacked from the air by an Apache military helicopter. In the dead of night, the gunship illuminated the night sky, firing projectile after projectile at the boat which was loaded with up to 140 men, women and children fleeing war torn Yemen. According to the Somali government, the refugees were en route to Sudan before attempting to return to Somalia. After passengers using flashlights somehow managed to indicate that they were civilians, the helicopter stopped firing after inflicting untold carnage.
The ill-fated boat’s departure point was Hodeidah, a port city located in an uncontested area of Yemen controlled by Houthi fighters and armed groups allied to Iran. Houthi allied coastguard officials in Hodeidah told Reuters that they knew of the boat’s departure for Sudan, seeing it off from their port before many of the passengers would experience their gruesome and painful deaths. Fingers were pointed at Saudi Arabia or a member state of the Saudi anti-Houthi coalition.
The port of Hodeidah, the departure point for the boat
A day later, the injured were being tended to at a hospital in Hodeidah. The injured included women who had lost limbs in the attack. Houthi fighters and locals helped collect the bodies from the boat the next day.
“Only a few of us survived the attack,” said one hospitalized woman, speaking to Reuters a day after the attack. “Many of our friends and acquaintances were killed on the spot, including seventeen women and the number of men killed…” she trailed off, unable to control her tears.
“All thanks to Allah, for our survival. We appreciate the assistance of the government of Yemen and the United Nations. They brought us all to this camp. I was badly wounded and have lost my leg,” one woman said speaking to Associated Press. “I saw a boy have his leg blown off and today a woman had to have her arm amputated. Many of them died at sea.”
Another woman struggled to speak while grimacing in pain from her hospital bed. “Very few of us were lucky to make it here alive. Most of our friends and acquaintances were killed on the spot, I know of at least seventeen women who died and the men…” her voice trails off as tears build up in her eyes.
Outside, young men who survived the attack have gathered under a tree. “We were bombarded mercilessly, my girlfriend and many of my friends are dead,” says one of them. “Those who survive have been put through indescribable physical pain at the hands of our inhumane attackers.”
One young man in the group speaks Arabic and appears to have been designated a spokesman for the group. “We appeal for assistance and to be able to be moved to a secure country.”
The details of what happened aren’t crystal clear as of yet, due to the only accounts of the horrors of that day having been told by survivors, some who understandably may not have the most dependable of retellings. The extremely stressful and psychologically draining situation they found themselves in may have left some with a mangled recollection of the events. While nearly every interviewed airstrike survivor agrees that an aerial bombardment was responsible for most of the bloodshed, several survivors were reported as seeing a sea vessel join the helicopter in engaging their boat simultaneously.
The Saudi Arabia led anti Houthi coalition was immediately reported as having carried out the attack by media outlets with a known pro-Iran or anti-coalition stance. “Saudi strike on refugee boat kills over 44 off Yemen coast,” was how Iran’s Press TV reported the news, quoting a local Houthi militia official. But most of the major international media networks, including the likes of BBC and Al Jazeera refrained from even mentioning the high likelihood that the Saudi Arabia coalition, being the only player in the Yemeni civil war with an air force, was likely responsible for the airstrike. In their press release titled “Somali refugees killed near Bab al-Mandeb Strait,” Al Jazeera appears to be attempting to veil the extent of the massacre by not including the number of dead in the headline. The article later acknowledges the fact that up to forty were believed to have died. There is no mention of Saudi Arabia in the entire article, with the briefest of statements at the end allocated to speculation on who might be responsible: “it was not immediately clear who had carried out the attack.”
Somalia allied herself to the coalition cause in 2014, making their response to the massacre appear somewhat level headed in nature (Image: Hiiraan Online)
The Somalia government meanwhile were methodical in their condemnation of the attack. Despite Somalia’s Foreign Minister Abdisalam Omer telling a radio show that he knew the Saudi airforce was responsible, he later released an official ministry statement toned down from his earlier on air statements. The Somalia government is a political supporter of the Saudi Arabia led coalition and its efforts in Yemen. Mogadishu has allowed the coalition to use Somalia’s airspace. The Foreign Minister’s revised statement issued a day later exhibited the country’s ties to the coalition.
“It is very sad to target a boat carrying Somali migrants near the coast of Hodeidah in Yemen,” said Foreign Minister Abdisalam Omer. “We call on our partners in the Saudi-led coalition to investigate the raid.”
Somalia’s call for Saudi Arabia to investigate appears to have fallen on deaf ears. Saudi Arabia responded by issuing a statement denying responsibility and saying that no coalition aircraft was active in the area on the day in question.
“We are also aware of allegations that the attack was carried out by a helicopter and naval vessel belonging to the Saudi-led coalition. We can confirm the coalition was not responsible for any attack on a refugee boat on Friday and that there was no firing by any coalition forces on Friday in the area of Hodeida,” concluded the statement.
Saudi government officials called on the United Nations to take over the Houthi controlled Hodeida port. There was no mention of any investigation and months later, it is quite clear that the Saudi coalition and other allied forces will make no efforts into getting answers despite the Somalia government’s pleas.
Three days after the airstrike, the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces, itself a member of the Saudi coalition issued a statement declaring that their own investigations had indicated that the Houthi rebel forces were responsible for the attack. The Houthis don’t have aircraft at their disposal, which dents the credibility of this claim.
So according to members of the Saudi led coalition, an aerial bombardment over waters just off the port of Hodeidah and not far from the Bab al-Mandeb strait by some rogue entity most likely allied to Iran and the Houthis may have been the cause of the tragedy.
Highly unlikely and here’s why.
The airstrike occurred in the Red Sea, a couple hundred kilometers away from the Bab al-Mandeb strait. The Bab al-Mandeb strait itself is an important maritime corridor for refugees but it’s much more than just that. The strait is also the entry to the Red Sea and a passageway for several hugely important global oil resource transit points. Located between Yemen, Eritrea and Djibouti, it separates the Gulf of Aden from the Red Sea. Major pipelines are accessed via the Bab al-Mandeb strait, including pipelines in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are co-owned, financed and furbished by the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Those pipelines export oil across the Mediterranean into European and North American markets. The US government agency Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that 4.7 million barrels of oil and “refined petroleum products” passed through the Bab al-Mandeb strait everyday in 2014, bound for Europe Asia and North America. Meanwhile, another coalition partner, Sudan, sees its only oil terminal pass through the Bab al-Mandeb strait, facilitating the export of Sudanese oil into Asia among other markets.
Simply put, the importance of the Bab al-Mandeb strait cannot be stressed enough. Since the start of the conflict in Yemen two years ago, there has been an increase not only of refugee boats travelling through or near the strait, but also of rebel speedboat attacks, mostly targeting Saudi naval ships. The strategic importance of the strait pushed many of the world’s superpowers to join the Saudi coalition in investing heavily in the strait’s security. According to the UK paper The Times, the UK deployed HMS Daring, one of its most advanced warships in November of last year for the sole purpose of protecting oil shipping lines. Two American warships, the USS Makin Island and the USS Comstock would also be deployed to the strait, days after an alleged Houthi suicide boat attack against a Saudi ship that killed two Saudi sailors last January.
With a better understanding of the strategic importance of the Bab Al Mandeb strait, one can see Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies in Qatar (updated: no longer the case), the UAE, Kuwait and other players would make the strait’s protection a priority, citing its economical importance among other reasons.
The notion that an unknown military aircraft could just swoop in on the airspace of this vital oil corridor without triggering the radar systems of the various superpowers doing round the clock surveillance of the strait and launch airstrikes before vanishing without a trace, is utterly ridiculous. There is no way that Saudi Arabia or its coalition allies would have absolutely no data on apache helicopters entering airspace over heavily patrolled waters. This reality also gives weight to the claims that there is no way a helicopter gunship would be able to gain access to areas so near to the strategically important strait, unless it belonged to a member or an ally of the Saudi Arabia led anti Houthi coalition force. Hence the hesitation in Riyadh to investigate the tragedy that claimed the lives of 42 Somali refugees. The coalition would essentially be investigating themselves.
Another reason Saudi Arabia was touted as having carried out the March 17 airstrike is the fact that airstrikes ordered by Saudi Arabia have already caused endless death and destruction in Yemen since the start of the conflict two years ago. A communiqué released last August by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) detailed how attacks on hospitals, schools and marketplaces had made Saudi air strikes the single largest cause of civilian casualties in Yemen throughout 2016. In 2015, even the Yemeni football association headquarters wasn’t spared the brawn of the Saudi air force, with the building being completely leveled to ashes. A Human Rights Watch letter to a Saudi Arabia government assessment team leader lamented the lack of cooperation by the Saudi government on investigations into over sixty unlawful coalition airstrikes. The letter stated that between March 2015 and October 2016, 4125 civilians had been killed, the majority as a result of indiscriminate coalition airstrikes. In October of 2016, in one of the worst incidents, 140 people were killed and over 500 injured in Sanaa when a funeral hall was bombed by coalition war planes.
The Saudi Arabia led coalition’s chart of war crimes dating from the start of the Yemeni conflict is endless. With such an extensive track record of unleashing missiles and bombs from the skies upon unsuspecting civilians below, it wouldn’t be farfetched to attribute an airstrike targeting hundreds of unarmed refugees aboard a boat to the Saudi led coalition air force. Such attacks have become the hallmark of the Saudi coalition and it’s beyond me why anyone would react with shock and dismay at their being accused of killing 42 Somali refugees.
The port city of Hodeidah, where the boat took off from, has itself been targeted numerous times for coalition airstrikes. In October of last year, Reuters reported that a Saudi led coalition airstrike killed up to sixty people, mostly inmates at a prison in Hodeidah. That attack came only weeks after another coalition airstrike killed 26 people in a residential area of Hodeidah. The Hodeidah port was used to import food and humanitarian supplies. But after an August 2015 coalition airstrike on the port, the ports storage facilities were severely damaged, curtailing the efforts to get supplies to Yemenis in famine risk areas. Coalition aircraft has been buzzing in and around Hodeidah, made easier due to the proximity of the Eritrean port city of Assab, which also hosts a coalition air and naval base. There is a coalition presence at the nearby Hanish Islands, located barely a hundred kilometers away from Hodeidah, between Eritrea and Yemen. The islands were captured from the Houthis in December of 2015. The proximity of coalition allied air bases in and around the area the boat was attacked, combined with their documented aerial assaults on the port city itself will leave most with little doubt about who would be most likely to attack a refugee boat that had docked at Hodeidah. It may have been an intelligence failure, the refugee boat may have been mistaken for a Houthi speedboat, it could have been the knee jerk reaction of a rather paranoid and trigger happy force that has caused so much destruction in the region thus far. But whatever the case, the circumstances surrounding the attack point to one conclusion: 42 Somali refugees were victims of yet another war crime committed by the coalition their government supports.
Months after the airstrike, despite more than enough reasons to suspect Saudi Arabia, Riyadh appears to have gotten off scot free.
There’s a prevalence of Saudi Arabia going unpunished for its military carrying out some of the most atrocious war crimes documented in recent times.
Saudi Arabia appears to have been granted carte blanche to conduct its military operations without scrutiny despite the depravity of their now two year long campaign of indiscriminate bombing of targets in Yemen. In June 2016, it appeared that the UN would attempt to punish Saudi Arabia, by adding the Saudi Arabian government to a UN blacklist of armies and armed forces that violate children’s rights due to the disturbing reports of children dying in coalition airstrikes.
But 72 hours after being blacklisted, Saudi Arabia had its name removed from the UN list. The UN announced that it was due to a revision of figures and statistics. But international media were quick to report that the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s being blackmailed by Saudi diplomats and coalition states and threats to pull funding for the UN are what forced the UN to give in and remove Saudi Arabia from the list of child killers. UK media outlet, Independent reported that an anonymous source spoke of Gulf State politicians using “bullying, threats, pressure” to force the UN to reverse the decision. The same source apparently spoke of the decision potentially pushing “clerics in Riyadh to issue a fatwa against the UN, declaring it anti-Muslim,” which would have severe repercussions that would go beyond withdrawal of funding. Ban Ki Moon later admitted to having keeled into the pressure, calling the decision to remove Saudi Arabia from the child killer blacklist, “one of the most painful and difficult decisions I have had to make.”
Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN Abdallah al-Mouallimi meanwhile stated that his government was “vindicated” as a result.
Due to their threats and bullying tactics, Saudi Arabia avoided being blacklisted by the UN, and will most likely avoid being indicted for any of the other war crimes they are accused of having committed in Yemen. With the likes of the Saudi oil dependent United States continuing to ratify all Saudi military actions as necessary in the “war on terrorism,” Riyadh most likely assumed that legal litigation as a result of a coalition Apache helicopter attacking a boat full of Somali refugees would never see the day. Hence the release of a rehearsed statement of denial and their simply waiting for the initial outrage to cool over. It has, and the issue has been largely forgotten outside of Somali circles.
A lack of diplomatic clout in Mogadishu means that no further investigations into the Somali refugee massacre will be pursued. The only other avenue to voice itself would be via the African Union, but the organisation is unlikely to issue a statement condemning the Saudi Arabia coalition for its role in killing 42 African migrants due to Saudi Arabia’s influence on the continent and the abundance of African coalition members, including the likes of Senegal, Sudan, Eritrea and Morocco.
Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)
No diplomatic muscle means that Somalia will have to swallow a bitter pill and move on. But if member states of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), revamped their organisation, the Somali government’s request into an investigation may not have been so easily dismissed. The eight nation body consists of Horn of African nations as well as Uganda, Kenya, Sudan and South Sudan. But despite the body’s perceived political unification of all these countries, there is always friction at IGAD assemblies as several of the member states have long broken off diplomatic relations. Eritrea for instance has no ties with Ethiopia and Djibouti, while tension between Sudan and newly independent South Sudan still lingers.
But if the IGAD consisted of eight states unified by a common agenda of mutual development and willing to sidestep their differences, it could have had the ability to put a collective foot down and be heard. As I mentioned above, the importance of the Bab al-Mandeb strait for oil transit is nearly unrivaled in the world. The strait comes into contact with the coasts of three IGAD member states, Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti. Sudan is another IGAD state with a coastline stretching across a section of the adjoining Red Sea. Had the member states of the body not been as politically fragmented as they are today, the organisation could have had bargaining power over access to the strait and the Red Sea. Neither Qatari, Egyptian nor Saudi territory comes into contact with the strait’s waters. Had the IGAD fulfilled its potential, the US would have had to let member states know of its intentions to send warships into the Red Sea. Now all they are obligated to do is contact their coalition allies before potentially defiling the sovereignty of several IGAD states. Political leverage of the likes of Somalia would shoot up upon the realization that an eight nation body could deploy a joint naval brigade to enforce its will in the Red Sea. Although unable to compete militarily with the superpowers of the world, due to their claims to surrounding territory, they would have the legal upper hand in any sovereignty disputes. The IGAD would even be in a position to influence the outcome of the war in Yemen. The body could easily become a regional power player.
Had there been a unified regional governing body within proximity of such strategically important waters such as the Bab al-Mandeb strait, the Saudi Arabia led coalition would be bending over backwards to apologize and make things right in the aftermath of an attack that led to the killing of 40 refugees, all of whom are citizens of an IGAD state. The focus wouldn’t be on conducting investigations, but on compensation and perhaps even prosecution of the pilots involved.
This isn’t the first time refugees hailing from an IGAD member state were cut down in Saudi Air strikes. On Monday May 21st 2015, an international aid office in the Yemeni town of Maydee was targeted by Saudi air strikes. Five Ethiopian refugees were killed while ten others were wounded. As has become custom, Saudi Arabia denied involvement and blamed the attack on the Houthis. Ethiopia didn’t pursue the matter and nothing more was heard of the issue. This was preceded by an air strike on the Al Mazraq camp for displaced peoples north of the country that killed 45 people including a number of Ethiopian and Somalian refugees.
It would be in the interests of IGAD to iron out the chinks in the organisation’s armour. It could prove a mighty adversary for states who refuse to think twice about launching air strikes against refugee targets.
But it will have come too late for 42 Somali refugees who departed from Hodeidah’s port on that fateful night. Amidst talk of President Donald Trump considering an escalation of American’s involvement in the Yemen conflict and Qatar’s exit from the coalition after a diplomatic fallout with its Gulf neighbours, the plight of the innocent Somalis desperate to return home to loved ones and friends before being bombed at sea, has dissipated into irrelevance. The families and relatives, with no government or governing body able to voice their cries, demand answers and perhaps provide them with some closure, are forced to shoulder on with what is undoubtedly unbearable sorrow. The injured and maimed face uncertain futures and are at the mercy of the psychological horrors of having lived through such a traumatic event.
Despite the only feasible explanation being Saudi Arabia’s direct involvement in their deaths, Riyadh’s being in cahoots with some of the world’s most powerful entities over oil and arm deals has freed them from all blame.
For the sake of refugees from Somalia and other states in the region whose deaths in airstrikes haven’t been deemed worthy of even an official message of condolences, one can only hope that the governments of these nations realize that there is a bigger battle out there.
One whose importance is beyond that of the tired endless regional feuding that has forced refugees to flee their countries of origin in the first place.
My name is Zecharias Zelalem.
(I’d like to express my heartfelt gratitude to journalist and blogger Ismail Warsame who translated the statements made by survivors from the Somali language to English for me).